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Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister please look into the fact that my constituents in Ilford, North are faced with the prospect of having to travel for 35 minutes by car or for more than an hour by public transport to get to the nearest accident and emergency department under the present proposals?

I appreciate entirely the hon. Gentleman’s concern and he will know that no firm proposals have been made yet. His local health service has made a set of propositions or is engaged in consultations, and those—as it has said—will be based on the safety of constituents, especially those using emergency services. It is important that we recognise that some 26 public hospital schemes have been opened in the strategic health authority that covers his area, with a value of £1.7 billion. There are three schemes under construction and no fewer than 25 local improvement finance trust—LIFT—schemes for local services have been opened. So I understand his concern, but no decisions have yet been made on the proposals. The important thing will be to ensure that people get the very best care possible. The hon. Gentleman will also, I hope, recognise that sometimes it is in the interests of those who have suffered strokes, heart disease or trauma to be able to go to the best specialist services available, with the best paramedic care.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on the patience that they have shown in helping to bring about the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland? May I also congratulate all of the parties in Northern Ireland on having the courage to take hold of the power that the people in Northern Ireland have placed in their hands? Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside power goes responsibility, including the responsibility to set a reasonable level of public expenditure?

I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend says and I thank him for his thanks to me and others engaged in that. I would however like to give my thanks to those who have shown such leadership in Northern Ireland and to the people who have shown and decided in the recent election that they want a future for Northern Ireland in which people from different perspectives can come together and share power on the basis of peace. That is a sensible and lasting solution for the people of Northern Ireland and I know that it is one that enjoys broad support across the United Kingdom.

May I join the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in congratulating the Prime Minister on bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion and also those who are taking part in power sharing? It has been difficult for them, but they are doing a brave and, I believe, a great thing.

There can be no excuse for Iran taking our Royal Navy personnel captive in Iraqi waters and holding them prisoner. They should be released immediately. The Prime Minister said that negotiations were entering “a different phase”. While he clearly must not say anything that jeopardises our personnel, can he tell us what that might involve?

I am sure that it is the position of everyone in this House that our thoughts are with our servicemen and the servicewoman and their families. Their safe return is our paramount concern.

However, let me be very clear as to what has happened here. These personnel were patrolling in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate. Their boarding and checking of the Indian merchant vessel was routine. There was no justification whatever, therefore, for their detention; it was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal. We had hoped to see their immediate release. This has not happened. It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian Government understand their total isolation on this issue.

This morning, we published the details of the exact co-ordinates and position of our forces when detained. They were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi territorial waters. The master of the civilian merchant vessel has confirmed this. Initially, on Saturday, the Iranian Government gave us their co-ordinates for the incident. Those co-ordinates turned out to confirm that the vessel was indeed within Iraqi waters. After this was pointed out to them, they subsequently gave a different set of co-ordinates, this time within Iranian waters.

We are now in contact with all our key allies and partners to explain the incontrovertible fact that the seizure of the 15 British personnel was utterly without foundation and to step up the pressure on the Iranian Government to deliver their immediate release.

I know that the whole House, and I believe the country, will be grateful for that very full answer. As the Prime Minister said, our service personnel were operating under a UN mandate. Does he agree that, as a result, the UN should make it crystal clear to Iran that the present situation is completely unacceptable? Can he tell us the steps that he is taking to mobilise support in the UN and among our allies in the EU and NATO, and among sympathetic Gulf states, to maximise the pressure on Iran?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. We have been speaking extensively to all our key allies and partners. I spoke this morning to Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, who has been in touch with the Iranian Government. The German Chancellor this afternoon in her speech to the European Parliament will speak on behalf of the European Union, as Germany has the presidency, and make it clear that the European Union as a whole finds the situation entirely unacceptable and believes that these people should be released. We are also in close contact with our partners and other members of the United Nations Security Council, and of course, next week the UK assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council.

We are in touch with everyone within Europe, NATO, the United Nations and our key allies in the Gulf region. We will do everything we can to make the Iranian Government realise that this is a situation that can only result in one sensible and fair outcome—the release of people who were merely doing their job under a United Nations mandate.

The Prime Minister says that there is absolutely no doubt that when our service personnel were taken, they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Given that UK forces are operating all the time in Iraqi waters and they are all operating under a UN mandate, will he make sure that they have clear rules of engagement? [Interruption.]

No, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of rules of engagement, because I think that it is important that we deal with it. First, I should make it absolutely clear that the rules of engagement do allow our forces to take whatever measures are necessary in their own self-defence. However, in my view, it was entirely sensible that those on the spot conducted themselves and behaved in the way that they did. They were coming down off the merchant civilian vessel, having checked it, and they were then surrounded by six Iranian vessels, which were heavily armed. If they had engaged in military combat at that stage, there would undoubtedly have been severe loss of life. I think that they took the right decision and did what was entirely sensible. Of course, we always keep the rules of engagement under constant review to make sure that we are carrying out our functions and protecting our people properly, but my understanding is that those who were out there and patrolling these waters believed that the rules of engagement are right.

It is important that we understand one other additional fact: by the time HMS Cornwall knew that our forces had been detained unlawfully by the Iranians, they were in Iranian waters, and again military engagement would have put a lot of lives at risk. I think that they took the right decision, and it is important that such decisions are left to people on the ground.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tax-and- spend policies of the Scottish National party for the coming Scottish Parliament elections, which would cost hard-working families in Scotland £5,000 each? What advice does he have for those who are tempted to follow the SNP into the abyss of separation, divorce and the break-up of the United Kingdom?

May I add my congratulations to those who have been responsible for making such progress in Northern Ireland?

In relation to Iran, I content myself simply by offering my support to the Government in their efforts to ensure the early release of our marines and sailors.

Why is it, as the Government’s own report demonstrated this week, that the poorest fifth of people in this country have a lower share of national income than they did in 1997?

As I was trying to point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week, we have raised some 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and, I think, almost 2 million out of absolute poverty, but the percentage rise in incomes for the bottom 40 per cent., between 1979 and 1997, was way below that of the top 40 per cent. That has been reversed over the past few years, and a combination of a strong economy, tax credits and the minimum wage have delivered, for the first time in years, real reductions in poverty.

If the Prime Minister will not answer that question, perhaps I might try another. After last week’s Budget, does he accept that those earning less than £18,500 a year who are not eligible for tax credits will have to pay an increase in income tax? How fair is that?

Again, if I could ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the matter in the round, over the past 10 years those families have seen their income rise in percentage terms by more than the top people. [Interruption.] The Tories may shout, but they opposed every one of the measures to reduce poverty in our country. As a result of the investment in tax credits, families with children, in particular, have benefited enormously over the past few years. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have to do even more. That is why the measures announced by the Chancellor will actually take an additional 200,000 children out of poverty. All the time, as the economy grows, we have to put even more resources into tackling child poverty. This Government are doing it; the last Conservative Government did not.

As a result of last week’s Budget, by 2009 Scottish families will, on average, be £200 a year better off, and for poorer families the figure rises to £350. What does my right hon. Friend think will happen to the income of those same families if, by 2009, Scotland has embarked on the road to independence?

There is no doubt at all that the problem is not merely that taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom will lead to a huge economic risk for Scotland and for Scottish industry, which is so closely connected with the UK economy, but the fact that the tax and spending plans of the SNP would mean that families would be £5,000 a year worse off. In addition, the SNP has a 3p local income tax, which would also deliver lower living standards for precisely the people whom my hon. Friend is talking about.

Q2. Yesterday, I read that Sir Alistair Graham said that the Prime Minister had “undermined trust” in politicians and had “failed on ethical standards”, and that radical changes are needed to the ministerial code. In view of that, does he feel qualified to offer his successor advice on reviewing the code, given the lamentably low standards of public probity that the Prime Minister has presided over in the past 10 years? (130081)

I am afraid that I completely and totally disagree with Sir Alistair Graham. He is entitled to his opinion, but I am entitled to mine.

The Government have done a superb job in regenerating our inner cities, but is it not now time to put the same energy, commitment and resources into regenerating British seaside resorts such as Morecambe and Blackpool?

I agree that it is indeed important that we regenerate our seaside resorts. That is precisely why the regeneration package for Blackpool, for example, is so important, but all our seaside resorts benefit from a strong economy that has seen low interest rates, low unemployment and high employment, and not the disastrous boom and bust policies of the 18 years before us.

In his Budget, the Chancellor put up the rate of corporation tax faced by every small business in the country. Why?

Because overall it was better for business that we cut—[Interruption.] Yes, overall it was better for business that we cut the level of corporation tax, and we have now taken it down from 33p in the pound to 28p in the pound. We have also taken capital gains for small businesses down from 40 per cent. to 10 per cent., and that is why there has been such growth in small businesses in the past 10 years.

Someone needs to tell the Prime Minister that there are two rates of corporation tax, and the one for small businesses is going up. It will be paid by every firm in the country. When it comes to large companies, the Chancellor followed our advice and cut the rate and simplified the system, but when it comes to small companies, he did the opposite—he increased the rate and he has made the system more complicated—so why is he punishing small firms?

We are not punishing small firms. As I just pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, as a result of the tax measures that the Chancellor has announced over the years—[Interruption.] Actually, according to the international surveys, the United Kingdom became the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment of any country in the world. [Interruption.] Well, small business also benefit from that, and if we look, for example, at the rate paid on capital gains by small business, when we came to power it was 40 per cent. We took it down to 10 per cent., which is a huge boost for small business. Let me say something else to the right hon. Gentleman: small businesses, like large businesses, benefit from a strong economy. Over the past 10 years, we have delivered a strong economy. The only experience that he has had as someone running our economy—[Interruption.]—yes, it was being present on Black Wednesday: hardly a great recommendation.

What business is interested in are the tax rates that it is going to have to pay now, and they are going up. The Prime Minister quotes the foreign direct investment figures, but does he not know that half of that is accounted for by one company—Shell—undergoing restructuring? Perhaps he ought to bother to read the Budget. The Forum of Private Business said that it would “further burden” them. The British Chambers of Commerce says that it is

“damaging for small and medium sized business”.

The Federation of Small Businesses said that those businesses feel “dismay”, and two thirds of small businesses say that the Budget will have a damaging effect. I choose to believe them, rather than him. The right hon. Gentleman has only 12 weeks left as the First Lord of the Treasury. Instead of the pointless search for the Environment Secretary’s backbone, why does he not use that power and withdraw that tax hike?

The reason why we got into the economic problems that we did when the right hon. Gentleman was working at the Treasury was that the last Conservative Government promised tax cuts and spending rises at the same time. What is his proposal now? Exactly the same—tax cuts and spending rises, which will lead, as they did then, to precisely the same result. We have a very, very clear choice between a Chancellor who has delivered the strongest economy on record—

Order. There is a lot of shouting. Mr. Stuart, you are doing very well at the shouting, so perhaps you can be quiet and set us all a good example.

As I said, we have a choice between a Chancellor who has the strongest economic record of any Chancellor in any main country over the past 10 years and a Conservative party that was a disaster economically when it was last in power and would be a disaster again if it ever got its hands back on the economy.

May I tell the Prime Minister that businesses in my constituency have welcomed the Budget enthusiastically, with the reduction in corporation tax, and that individuals in the constituency, particularly pensioners, have welcomed the increase in the threshold for tax and savings. However, there is deep concern among a number of my constituents that that economic prosperity will not prevail. What reassurance can the Prime Minister give me that after May constituents will not be faced with extra taxes, and that we will ensure the continuation of that prosperity?

Of course, as my right hon. Friend rightly implies, the single most important thing for all businesses is a strong and stable economy. The thing that wrecked so many businesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the second recession under the Conservatives. It is important to keep that stability going, which is why we reject the tax and spending policies of the Conservatives. Also, what would be a disaster for local business in Scotland is a 3p on income tax local rate.

Q3. Last week’s Budget cost Britain’s charities £70 million a year in Gift Aid. The Chancellor did not mention that in his Budget speech, he failed to mention it in the Red Book, and he failed to mention it in any of the Budget documentation. Was the Prime Minister informed, and does he approve? (130082)

I approve entirely of the Budget. Over the past few years, as a result of what the Chancellor has done, we have given enormous support to charities—[Interruption.] Oh yes, and what is more, we will give further support to charities in one very important way. We will allow charities to perform much more of the tasks previously done by the traditional public sector—for example, in the management of offenders. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that when the Bill came before the House.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that by next year NHS spending will have tripled since the Government came to office. We have 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors. [Interruption.] Is it not true that the NHS is safe in this Government’s hands?

Opposition Members were asking, “Where has the money gone?” Let me tell them. We now have the lowest waiting lists and lowest waiting times on record. When we first came to office, people were often dying while waiting for their operation on the national health service. Today, they get it. We have had 100,000 fewer deaths from heart disease. That is where the money has gone. We are saving tens of thousands of lives in better and faster cancer treatment. That is where the money has gone, and it has gone, yes, in better pay for nurses, doctors and consultants—proposed by us and opposed by the Conservatives.

Q4. While the Prime Minister plans his lecture tour, is he aware that many servicemen and women whom he has committed to active tours overseas have returned in a traumatised state to barracks, alongside troops training to go on active deployment to the very same theatres? With five years until Selly Oak is fully operational, he surely still has the time to delay closure of the Royal Naval hospital Haslar next week, and to commission specialist military units in designated hospitals to provide proper treatment to our troops. (130083)

What the hon. Gentleman says is not correct. It does nothing for the morale of our armed forces for it to be said that they are not getting proper treatment—[Interruption.] Perhaps he will just listen to me for a moment. It is important for our forces that their families are not worried by completely inaccurate stories that their loved ones do not get the proper care that they should have. If the hon. Gentleman visits Selly Oak, staff there will tell him exactly what they are doing, with a military managed ward and the best specialist care. They will also explain to him why the decision taken by the last Conservative Government, though rightly, to close down Haslar is necessary and correct, because of the degree of specialist treatment that the troops need when they are severely injured. It is not correct to say that they are not getting excellent care from the Defence Medical Services, which are superb, and also from the general NHS staff, who are utterly dedicated.

No one wants too much central Government control, but what can we do about Conservative county councils like Kent, which has just squandered £300,000 supporting an airline that never took off, wants to set up a television station of its own, and is paying its chief executive more money than the Prime Minister?

That is an interesting thought for the future. Let me say to my hon. Friend that there is a very clear remedy in those circumstances, which is to vote Labour in the local elections.

Q5. The Prime Minister just talked about better and faster cancer treatment. The Royal College of Radiologists says that cancer victims should receive radiotherapy treatment within four weeks of having an operation. A constituent of mine who has been a nurse in the NHS for 40 years was operated on January and is now having to wait 12 weeks before she gets her radiotherapy treatment—a common waiting time in Kent. Can he explain why, in this vital life-saving area into which he has poured lots of public money, things for my constituents are getting worse, not better? (130084)

Obviously, I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not know about it, but I am happy to look into it. Given that the health service treats 1 million people every 36 hours, I am not suggesting, in any shape or form, that there are not people who do not get the care that they deserve or do not still have to wait too long. However, let me point out that within the hon. Gentleman’s strategic health authority there are over 4,000 more nurses, 600 more consultants, 400 more GPs, and 450 more dentists, if I may say. Moreover, there has been a massive investment in the health service that has meant that overall, whereas thousands of people used to wait 12 months, 18 months or more, now virtually no one waits more than six months.

I am happy to look into the individual case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but the fact is that the whole business of waiting and access to the health service over the past 10 years has been transformed. We need to go further, and we will—by the end of next year, we will have an 18-week maximum waiting time for in-patients and out-patients, including diagnostics, and an average of seven to eight weeks, in effect ending traditional waiting in the national health service. There may still be cases, which are obviously wrong if they exist, where people are waiting too long, but it is surely important to balance that up with the overall picture, which is immensely positive.

In a statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Union, the Pope said that Europe’s moral, cultural and historical values were forged by Christianity, that the EU was denying those facts, and that any detachment from its Christian roots by Europe was a form of apostasy, not only from God but from itself. As a leading Christian in this place, would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the Pope’s view?

Frankly, I would not. I do not think that the Pope needs me as his spokesman, so it is better that he makes his statement and I make mine. I would say that we should be immensely proud of the values represented by the European Union, where we now have a unified Europe, east and west. Without in any way detracting from our firm, independent sovereignty as a nation, I think that the European Union has been good for this country over the past 30 years and good for Europe over its lifetime.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister accept that a commitment to exclusively peaceful means must of necessity include the dismantling of all terrorist structures, including the IRA army council? (130085)

The Independent Monitoring Commission is the body that is charged with deciding whether that commitment to exclusively peaceful and non-violent means is being adhered to. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it has a further report coming in the next few weeks. However, it has made its statement that the IRA is indeed abiding by that principle, and I think that it has the people best placed to make the judgment.

Q7. My right hon. Friend will recall that on 21 March 1993 the IRA exploded two bombs in Bridge street in Warrington, killing Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry. My close friends, Colin and Wendy Parry, have worked tirelessly over the past 14 years to build community relations in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, and have made a unique contribution to the peace process. May I ask my right hon. Friend to redouble his efforts and work very closely with the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) to ensure that the foundations that were laid on Monday result in a permanent peace in Northern Ireland and that Johnathan and Timothy did not die in vain? (130086)

I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done on this issue over the years. Now is an appropriate moment, even as we look forward in Northern Ireland, to remember Johnathan Ball, Tim Parry and also Bronwyn Vickers, who I believe was injured in the explosion and died some time later. We extend our sympathy to the families of all the victims of the troubles. In respect of Colin and Wendy Parry, they have shown a quite extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and determination to promote reconciliation. They can be very proud of the work that they have done over the years. It is interesting that the spirit that they represent has, ultimately, triumphed over hatred, discord and conflict. Surely that should give us hope for the future.

May I strike a note of consensus with the Prime Minister? On Monday, he said that the election campaign in Scotland was going “brilliantly”—I agree with him. In his latest brilliant foray into Scotland, he attacked Sir George Mathewson, the former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland as being “self-indulgent” and suggested that he was not a “real” business man. Will the Prime Minister tell me what is the more self-indulgent—someone of vast experience who speaks up for independence as being good for the Scottish economy and society, or is it someone who proffers vast loans in the hope of buying a seat in the House of Lords?

I did not criticise Sir George as a business man at all, but I criticised his view on independence, which I am entitled to do. Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman why I believe that separation is so wrong. Scotland benefits from the Union, just as England benefits from it. We are able to have a stronger Scottish economy with 200,000 more jobs and Scottish unemployment below the UK average for the first time in a generation. The hon. Gentleman’s policies would not just tear Scotland out of the United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman was heard because I allowed it; he will now listen to the Prime Minister.

Of course, the polls indicate that this is a real fight. People in Scotland will have to make up their minds whether they want the policy that the hon. Gentleman represents, which is separation—with all the risks that it entails, with tax and spending policies that would mean a £5,000 hit for average households and a 3p local income tax—or whether they want to continue with what has happened to the Scottish economy and living standards over the last 10 years, which has meant Scotland’s unemployment being below the UK average for the first time, 200,000 extra jobs and a booming Scottish economy. That is the choice and I look forward to debating with the hon. Gentleman from now until polling day.